116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A bald eagle swooped before us as we slowly motored downriver. Soon we spotted its nest high in a bankside cottonwood.
We were cruising the Mississippi River on a day trip from our home in Cedar Rapids. Instead of riding in a speedboat or an excursion steamboat replica, we were on the Pride of Cassville Ferry heading for Wisconsin.
Cassville appeared between the river and a steep bluff as Captain Dakota Lindsley nudged the ferry inward. The deckhand soon opened the gate, letting two motorcycles clamber off the boat and up to the road. We followed in our car and spent a few hours in Cassville, Wis., a town of just under a thousand people.
Early settlers wishing to cross the river to stake their claim on a piece of what became the Hawkeye State faced a dilemma. Back then no bridges spanned the water, but there were ferries spaced along nearly the entire length of the Mississippi all the way down to New Orleans.
As population and commerce increased, ferries became ever less efficient. They were slow, expensive and couldn’t operate during winter or when rivers were flood swollen or choked with log rafts.
Bridges gradually replaced ferry after ferry. Today, they’re rare, but far from extinct. From what we researched, five ferries still cross the Big River in Louisiana with another five connecting Missouri with either Illinois or Kentucky. Others cross major tributaries.
Fortunately, the upper Midwest has the Cassville Ferry linking Wisconsin and Iowa. Riding it is more fun and scenic than buzzing across a bridge. The 15-minute cruise saves a long drive either upriver to the Marquette bridge or downriver to another bridge in Dubuque.
The Cassville Ferry traces its ancestry back to at least 1830 when lead prospectors searched the rugged terrain on both sides of the river. They needed to cross the river occasionally. The first ferry was a flat-bottomed boat able to haul just one wagon and a team of horses. Oars and muscles inched it across the current.
By 1858, the ferry was upgraded when Wisconsin’s first governor, Nelson Dewey, returned to Cassville to develop the town. River crossings became more essential, so he had a new boat built that could carry two wagons and teams across. Called the Betsy Ross, it was powered by two horses walking on treadmills that turned paddle wheels.
By the late 1800s, Iowa farmers began growing vegetables on the Iowa side, but the main cannery was in Cassville. They needed a reliable way to get produce to Wisconsin. Horsepower was retired in about 1912 and replaced with two gasoline engines that powered the paddle wheels.
In its early days, the Ferry hauled loads of lead ore, livestock, produce, lumber and the mail across the river but gradually its use shifted. Although it still carries items of commerce, today most people cross the river for fun. In its 120-day record-setting, operating season last year, 6,156 vehicles, 4,070 motorcycles, 1,600 bicycles, and 1,576 pedestrians took the ride on the modern ferry named The Pride of Cassville.
It is busiest during fall’s stunning colorful leaf display.
The ferry is owned and operated by the town of Cassville. Fares are $15 for a car and occupants, $2 for pedestrians, $5 for bicycles and $8 for motorcycles. Only cash is accepted. As ferries go, it’s small and holds about a dozen cars. On busy times when the ferry is full, a car may need to wait until the next crossing. Be patient and bring a lawn chair to enjoy the scenery while waiting.
The ferry makes about a dozen round trips each day from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. It runs seven days a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day and Friday, Saturday and Sunday from Labor Day until Oct. 28. It also runs three days a week in late spring. In June, July and August, special sunset two-hour cruises bring visitors either up or downstream. Reservations are required.
We learned there is plenty to do in Cassville year-round. Of course, fall is busiest with tourists flocking to see color. Labor Day weekend’s Car Cruise draws hundreds of car enthusiasts to eyeball the classics and muscle cars. Free and in the Riverside Park, it’s complete with a Pinup Girl Contest. A week later the St. Charles Fall Festival and BBQ wafts delicious aromas across Old Man River. In October, the community hosts Safe Halloween at Stonefield Village upstream from the town. Christmas in Cassville with its fireworks over the river is not to be missed. Winter brings fishing and catfish fries.
Plenty of trails around Grant County is a draw for ATV/UTV fans. Check the town website for details. A variety of motels, a lodge, AirBnBs and camping makes overnighting easy.
We planned to drive to the ferry, landing near Millville, Iowa, cross over on the Pride of Cassville, drive south and take in the National Brewery Museum in Potosi, and recross the Mississippi on the Highway 151 bridge to Dubuque. From there we’d drive home.
Our planned short stay in Cassville became a several hour visit. We loved the town. Tidy, and set in the rugged beauty of the Driftless Area, Cassville features locally owned restaurants, many places to stay and a delightful trail and walk along the river.
After walking through downtown, we drove a few miles upriver to Nelson Dewey State Park. As our car emerged at a high overlook, we could see the Pride of Cassville below us chugging downriver bringing more tourists to Cassville. The park itself is worth the trip and has a campground, trails, tall trees and overlooks.
Just a few driving miles south of Cassville is the Potosi Brewery and the National Brewery Museum. Although we’re neither beer historians nor heavy brew drinkers, we enjoyed the museum’s nostalgic focus on brands of yesterday and today. The nearby brewery sponsors tours and so many people were enjoying lunch in the cafe that new arrivals faced a long wait.
We opted to drive to Dubuque and enjoy lunch there. Then it was a quick drive back to Cedar Rapids. The pleasant day trip took about eight hours and covered nearly 200 miles.
PRIDE OF CASSVILLE OPPORTUNITIES
Corridor residents can easily duplicate our circular trip going in either direction. However, the Ferry offers a pleasant way to cross the Mississippi on other adventures including:
- A Cassville walking Tour: Drivers can park their car on the Iowa side and walk on the ferry. In just minutes they'll be walking through downtown Cassville, where they can enjoy lunch in one of several cafe’s close to the ferry landing. Simply recross the river and drive home. Pedestrians are charged only $2 per crossing. That’s an inexpensive cruise to a fun lunch.
- Cassville with the car: Bringing the car across opens more opportunities. There is time to enjoy lunch in town, take in the view from the Nelson Dewey State Park overlook or drive down to the Potosi Brewery and Museum before ferrying back across and driving home. Overnight visitors can camp in the park, relax in an Airbnb or enjoy small quaint hotels.
- A northern loop: Riding the ferry and enjoying Cassville can be the start of a northern river loop on the Great River Road on each side of the Mississippi. Drive up the Wisconsin side and enjoy another great view from Wyalusing State Park, then cross over to Iowa and see the view from the other side at Pikes Peak State Park. A short spur drive from Marquette, Iowa, allows motorists to visit Effigy Mounds National Monument a few miles north. It would be a long day trip, but is doable.
- The way northern loop: A possible long day trip, but a better overnighter, is to cross the river on the Pride of Cassville, drive north through Prairie du Chien and beyond and cross into Iowa on the Lansing bridge. Then take the Great River Road south past one of our favorite Iowa sights. Between Lansing and Harpers Ferry is one of the most picturesque churches anywhere. Set in a valley beneath colorful trees is Wexford Catholic Church. We visit a few times a year and enjoy the serenity of the valley and church. From there it’s about 125 miles to Cedar Rapids.
There are many places to eat and overnight in Prairie du Chien, Lansing, Marquette or McGregor. Camping at Yellow River State Forest or any of the state parks is possible. Peak leaf color usually starts at the end of September and lasts a couple of weeks. It may be muted this year due to the ongoing drought, but magnificent views are always present.
Rich and Marion Patterson have backgrounds in environmental science and forestry. They co-own Winding Pathways, a consulting business that encourages people to “Create Wondrous Yards.”